By Yechiel Amar, Staff Writer
In any Yeshiva, perhaps in any religious institution, there is an existential question that is commonly raised: the problem of free will. Of how, in a world of Divine Design, the ability for choice could exist. This quandary carries massive weight in the mind of the believer and has been explored in countless ways including books, classes, movies, and television. However, in my opinion there is one format that can express these ideas better than all the rest. I am talking of course about the highly vaunted art form of the video game.
Now granted, for most people the word “art” is possibly the last thing one would associate with video games. And yes, I can see that point. I don’t think Call of Duty: Black Ops III was made to comment on the complex realities of the human condition, nor do I think the same can be said about Fortnite or Subway Surfers and how they deconstruct mortality (if this is your planned thesis paper, I apologize). But what I am describing is something entirely different. While there are games made purely to thrill and entertain, there are others made to do what all other great works of art do; to ask questions that pierce the depths of the soul, to express vividly through imagery, music, and writing such to the point that can bring one either to laughter or to tears. And the greatest games of all? They can do both all that and still be a ton of fun to play.
But what makes a video game unique from a movie? Why play The Last of Us when I can just watch the show on HBO? The answer to this is simple: a video game is interactive. It is one thing to read or view a character’s journey, to follow them through their point of view and watch as their story unfolds. But it is another thing entirely to become that character, to change your mode of interacting with the story from a passive one to an active one, to make the choices yourself and see how the world responds to them. That’s what a story is, the story of a character’s choices and the consequences that ensue. And when the one making the choices is you, an entire new level of depth is added.
It is hard for me not to see video games as a microcosm of our world, especially through a Judaic perspective. It’s a world designed by a (within the metaphor) “All-Knowing Creator” in which you make choices and see their results, all pre-programmed and known by the creator. In this case, how much do your choices matter if none of what you do is real and all pre-planned? If you choose to kill a fictional character instead of spare them, what does that say about you? Does that say anything? Your objective is your purpose, your meaning. If you stray from that objective, what becomes of you then? Believe or not I have seen these issues, along with a multitude of others, ranging from the political sphere to the social and economic, all covered in video games. Yes, perhaps a movie can do the same, but the viewer is seeing the points from an outsider’s perspective. With games, the creator of the game guides a perspective uniquely owned by you.
An example from my own gaming experiences (mild spoilers ahead): In the video game The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask you play as the character Link and are tasked with saving the land of Termina from being crushed by the moon falling from the sky. The catch? You have three in-game days to do so. If you fail, you must go back in time and try again, and again, and again until you can get it right. Along the way you meet many of the people of the land, you watch as they come to terms with the calamity about to ensue. You can even assist them in solving their troubles. But it doesn’t matter, because when the days reset, your actions reset as well. And no matter how hard you try during those three days to help every person, to solve all their problems and save the world as well, it’s an impossible task. There is too much to do and too little time. The game illustrates many lessons, but one echoes in my mind: try as you might, you never can save everyone. All you can do is make the most with the time you have.
I’d just like to mention that I’m not knocking other games, I’ve spent enough time as a car trying to knock a soccer ball into a net playing Rocket League or as a frenzied cook trying to direct my friends in a kitchen in Overcooked to act all hoity-toity about video games. But if you had written off video games as banal and a waste of time with no merit, I hope I’ve given you cause to reconsider. From my own experience, here are some games that I would fit in the category I described above, while also being pretty fun to play: The Stanley Parable, Undertale, Papers Please, Hollow Knight, Bioshock Infinite, OneShot (this game actually made me cry), Spiritfarer, Dandara. I will suggest as well We Become What We Behold, a free to play 5 min online game that left me slightly shaken.
That video games are an art form and an exceptional one at that is not a new argument. The games I listed above make that case by themselves. I just wanted to share with others what I had found myself. Immersive journeys, some thought provoking, other heart wrenching, with their own voice with what to say on what it means to be human. Behind the format’s outer façade of senseless violence and purposeless entertainment, there is beauty and meaning to be found. I say once more: to play is to choose, and the choice is yours. Enjoy.